- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- One team always leaves this place with more questions than answers, its every flaw exposed and each deficiency exploited by an opponent at home in its surroundings. Hockey's Whalers have been gone for years, but the power play often feels alive and well, one team controlling the game as if it has more players on the court.
One team often shows what basketball looks like in five-part harmony, which is why the XL Center is so often home to championship celebrations this time of year.
It just isn't the team with a flight to catch in most cases.
Notre Dame has all the answers this season. It leaves Hartford with its first outright Big East championship after a 72-59 victory against Connecticut, the first-ever win for the Fighting Irish at the XL Center, the Huskies' second home. In front of 15,132 fans unfamiliar with what unfolded, Notre Dame won not by playing a perfect game or rising to the moment, but simply by playing basketball the same way they have all season.
And the Huskies are left with plenty of questions to ponder on the short trip back to campus.
"They're just better than we are right now," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "Devereaux Peters is a better rebounder than anybody we have. Natalie Novosel is just a tougher kid than anybody we have right now. And they deserved to win, fair and square."
Peters finished with 15 rebounds, two blocks, three steals and three assists. It was the seventh time in the past 10 games that she grabbed at least 15 boards. Six of Monday's rebounds came on the offensive end, part of an effort from the Fighting Irish that piled up 19 offensive rebounds, the most by any team against Connecticut this season (since the beginning of last season, Connecticut has given up as many as 19 offensive rebounds just five times; Notre Dame is responsible for three of them). Novosel added eight rebounds and finished with 21 points, missing 11 shots from the floor but getting to the free throw line nine times. Skylar Diggins added 20 points and three steals.
But it isn't just that Notre Dame has three great players, one of whom, Diggins, is a lock for All-American honors, while the other two merit consideration. Peters was darn good during her 35 minutes on the court Monday, and Novosel was relentless, but it would be difficult to argue any of the three stars played her best game of the season. The Fighting Irish blew open what was a close game not because of their strongest link but because of the lack of any weak links.
The game was enough of a foregone conclusion, and Auriemma frustrated enough, that he emptied his bench at the same time as the stands emptied in the closing minutes, but it was still in doubt at halftime. Connecticut's Tiffany Hayes and Stefanie Dolson combined for 30 points in the first half, providing the kind of support Bria Hartley didn't have when the teams nevertheless played into overtime in the season's first meeting, and the Huskies trailed by just three points on this night.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said the team talked during the break about making post entry more difficult and helping more off the dribble when Hayes went to the basket. The result was Dolson finished with six points in the second half and missed five of eight shots. Hayes took just two shots, scored four points and committed three turnovers after the break. Instead of riding the wave of momentum, Connecticut foundered against defensive pressure.
All told, the Huskies shot just 35 percent and committed 10 turnovers in the second half, their offense looking like so many visiting offenses have looked over the years.
"They put on great pressure on us," Dolson said. "We backed up. We didn't fight back."
Connecticut tried its own adjustments, relying heavily on a zone early in the second half. Unflustered, the Fighting Irish moved the ball around into the open hands of Kayla McBride, who knocked down three shots in quick succession, and Brittany Mallory, who hit two 3-pointers, one to push the lead to nine points and the second to extend it to 10 points, quelling the last run the Huskies would make.
All five parts worked as one on defense, and all five parts worked as one on offense (or six parts, if you want to count Natalie Achonwa throwing a pass to an admittedly wide open McBride as the latter stood to urge on teammates from the bench).
"Today was a really good game for us because we only turned it over 12 times," McGraw said. "I was just starting to worry about the turnovers. I thought that could be our Achilles' heel, we really were making some poor decisions. And tonight we came out, and I thought took care of the ball pretty well. Defensively, first half, we gave up a lot of points, so I was happy with the second-half defense.
"I think there's still work to be done."
Just not as much work as on the other side.
After the game, a clearly frustrated Auriemma talked about how little his team has improved since the beginning of the season and how close to perfection it needs to come to beat teams like Notre Dame and Baylor. That the Huskies are good enough to beat most teams isn't up for debate, a 26-4 record evidence enough for a team still in line to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But most teams are the teams Connecticut plays to pass the time between the games that matter, the games by which Auriemma measures his program. And it's those games in which Connecticut still looks like a team in search of an identity.
Notre Dame isn't unbeatable. Just ask West Virginia. But the Fighting Irish know what they have each and every game. They know that if they play their game, they can win any game. Perhaps should win any game.
Connecticut doesn't know what it has, getting individual brilliance from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (against Stanford), Bria Hartley (against Baylor or Notre Dame the first time) or Hayes and Dolson in the first half this night but never looking as complete as the Fighting Irish looked Monday.
"It's been a couple of weeks, a month maybe, where somebody steps up and somebody backs up," Auriemma said. "Somebody else steps up and somebody backs up. When you get a team like Notre Dame, [when] Diggins plays well and Novosel plays well and Peters plays well and they get a great night from McBride, all of a sudden now you just don't have enough."
Things could turn out differently if these teams meet again in the Big East final next week. They could turn out differently if they meet in the Final Four, as Notre Dame proved a season ago. But on this night, the same thing happened in the XL Center that always happens here.
The better team won.
"I think this team is really special," McGraw said. "And they have really high goals. They're a competitive group, they have a lot of pride, and I love that about them."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.